As the end of the second quarter approaches, many of my students have been rethinking their study strategies, asking questions like, “What is the most effective way for me to study?” and “Why do I not feel prepared for exams, even though I’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying?” I’ve been there, and so have many of my fellow ADs. For me, however, it was not until I decided to study Psychology in college that I began to use what I knew about the brain to make my study sessions less stressful and more productive. And so I present to you a list of the very best study strategies, tips, and tricks that are based on concepts from the fields of Psychology and Neuroscience.
This tip is first for a reason. Learning to associate what you are learning with other things is an age-old memory trick that helps with subjects that require memorization remembering huge amounts of information (can anyone say AP World??).
Color: Organize your notes using color-coding. For example, say you have to study for a Geometry exam, and you’re feeling really overwhelmed by how much vocab you have to remember. Take a few different-colored highlighters or markers and organize the information in a more logical fashion, using different colors to write words that relate to one another. This will help your brain associate similar concepts with one another and with certain colors, which helps you easily remember related terms.
“Try studying in different places for different subjects. . . your brain will learn to associate places with concepts.”
Place: You might study in the same place, for every single subject, every single day. Instead, try studying in different places for different subjects. For example, if you prefer to study at home, study in the kitchen for math, the basement for history, and the sitting room for science. This way, your brain will learn to associate places with concepts. This can be helpful when trying to recall material. Say you studied in the kitchen for Chemistry, and while you’re taking the test, you forget what a “cation” is. You can then think back to when you were in the kitchen, and all of a sudden, once you see the oven in your mind’s eye, you could suddenly remember how when you were studying the difference between cations and anions, your mom was baking cookies. Suddenly, you might remember that a cation is an ion with a positive charge, because this is exactly what you were thinking just as the cookies came out of the oven.
NOTE: One thing to be careful about here… choose your study location wisely. If you know you’ll be too distracted in the kitchen, maybe leave that off your list. For those whose homes are too loud or distracting- try getting out of the house! More likely than not, your local library has a study room where noise is prohibited. Take advantage of the resources in the McLean, Great Falls, and other Fairfax County communities!
Food: Eat while you study! For example, eat one part of your lunch while studying for Physics, another while studying for APUSH, and another while studying for English. Your brain will associate the food you eat with what you are learning, which again will create a shortcut in your brain. This way, you’ll always remember what your Physics test means by “coefficient of friction”, which you will now forever associate with baby carrots.
“It’s much easier to remember a funny phrase than a bunch of boring words.”
Mnemonic devices are great ways to remember terms that need to be remembered in a certain order, or terms that are related to one another. On top of color-coding, you can create an acronym out of the first letters of each word and come up with a funny phrase whose words start with the same letters. Some popular mnemonics you may have already learned are PEMDAS (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally) for the order of operations, or KHDMDCM (King Henry Died Monday Drinking Chocolate Milk) for units in the metric system. It’s much easier to remember a funny phrase than a bunch of boring words. It’s also worth mentioning that there are a number of mnemonic device generators on the internet, but speaking from experience, you are much more likely to remember ones that you come up with yourself. This probably has to do with…
The Self-Reference effect is a concept that is related to association, but different in that you try to relate concepts to your own life, or the world around you. According to researchers, “Results [of numerous studies] indicate that self-reference is a rich and powerful encoding process,” meaning that your brain tags information related to yourself as extra-important, which then makes that information easier to remember (Rogers et al.).
A strategy related to this is making connections between your classes. In pretty much every science class, you’ll learn about famous scientists that shaped the history of the science. You can connect these scientific people to what else you know was going on at the time from history class, which will give some context to what would initially just be a list of names and accomplishments.
“Many students aren’t aware of what kind of learner they are, which causes them to use study strategies that don’t work for them.”
Many students aren’t aware of what kind of learner they are, which causes them to use study strategies that don’t work for them. There are three main learning styles: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic/Tactile. Most people are some combination of all three, but in different quantities. Check out this questionnaire to find out which learning style best describes you. Once you have these results, here are a few strategies that work for different types of learners:
Visual: Have lots of pictures, colors, and charts. If you have a hard time visualizing things, do a quick search on Google images, or take a look at your textbook. Textbooks especially often have great visuals, especially for complex processes and relationships. Organize information in chart-form if it isn’t that way already, or if you don’t like how your teacher or the textbook organized it.
Auditory: Study out loud, talk to yourself, and study with others. On the same note, check out YouTube and Khan Academy videos for in-depth verbal explanations for pretty much everything. You can create free accounts on both websites, so be sure to take advantage of these awesome resources.
Kinesthetic/Tactile: Rewrite your notes from class, PowerPoints, and study guides. These kinds of learners learn by doing, and taking the time to write things out manually (as opposed to typing them on the computer) will help your brain, because the information is now associated with how you move your muscles.
Again, most people are a mix of all three, which means that you don’t necessarily have to stick to just auditory strategies if you’re an auditory learner. For example, I’m primarily a visual learner, but I find that rewriting my notes and study guides using colors and charts is really helpful. Therefore, feel free to mix and match these strategies to suit your taste.
“Come up with study plan well ahead of time, at least a week before your exam.”
When many of my students (especially those who are on a studying time crunch) come up with study plans, they tend to have high expectations for how much they can actually study in a given amount of time. However, the brain needs time to rest and comprehend the information it is learning before it can move on and do the same for new information. Instead, be nice to your brain! Give yourself plenty of time to study information, especially information that is particularly confusing to you. Follow these steps to craft an effective study plan:
Above all, be kind to yourself, your brain, and your body. If you need a break, take a break. Take a walk by yourself or with your dog. If you feel yourself getting stressed and overwhelmed, give yourself a pep talk. Know that you are capable of learning anything given the proper strategies and amount of time. Here are a few quick tips:
This was something I had a really hard time with in high school, and even at the beginning of my college career. Asking for help is NOT admitting defeat! It also does not mean you aren’t smart enough. If you find yourself struggling on the daily and feel your stress levels are getting in the way of you getting work done, consider meeting with a GLC tutor either one-on-one, or in a study lounge. If you’re not sure if tutoring is right for you, have a talk with your parents, and contact our directors in McLean, Great Falls, and Charlottesville. Tutoring is helpful for many different kinds of students. If you…
…then tutoring might be a good option for you!
While most of the work of preparing for quarter exams falls to the student, there are always ways that parents can help their children achieve their exam goals. When I was a high schooler, my parents and I had a bit of a contentious relationship when it came to grades. I was always an excellent student, but I wasn’t always forthcoming about filling them in on my study plans, which gave them a lot of anxiety. Above, I’ve reminded students that communicating their study plans to their parents is incredibly important. But what can you do, as a parent, to help foster openness in your students?
Quarter exams are just that: they come at the end of the quarter. Most of the time, these tests cannot be used to “rescue” a bad grade, which is at that point the result of an entire quarter’s worth of work. If your student has been regularly getting C’s in history, it is unlikely that, even if they study harder than ever, they will get an A for the quarter. As I mentioned above, it is important to have realistic goals when it comes to improving one’s grades. Just know that it’s a slow and frustrating process, and won’t happen overnight, and quarter exams can be a good reminder that starting the quarter on the right foot makes a world of difference. Dramatic grade changes take lots of time and effort.
Exams are hard. As a tutor who works primarily with high school students, I am fully aware that the material they are expected to know can be difficult, even for adults! Let your student know you understand how challenging these tests can be, and that you don’t trivialize their educational struggles. When students, parents, schools, and education professionals are all working together, these struggles are so much more manageable!
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